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George Whitefield: The First American Celebrity

When most people think of the most famous person in early American history, names like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington come to mind. But someone else holds that honor prior to these two men, plus he unknowingly produced the first baby step toward the American Revolution. Who is he and what did he do? George Whitefield (pronounced “whit-field”)(1714-1770) and he was a traveling evangelist.

Whitefield’s father died when he was two years old, and his mother ran an inn, therefore Whitefield grew up in rough surroundings. Even so, he did become a Christian. Then his mother found out that wealthy families hired poor students to be servants for their sons; in return, the poor boys’ education was paid.

So it was that Whitefield ended up at Oxford as the servant of a wealthy student and a student at the university. At this point he pursued a church career with the Church of England. But while there he made friends with a small group of Oxford students who encouraged each other to live holy lives as Christians instead of the usual “college” rowdiness and drunkenness.

With his new friends, Wesley grew in spiritual awareness and devotion to God. On June 26, 1736, Whitefield was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England. As he began preaching in the pulpits, he gained a reputation as a very skilled speaker. During these sermons, Whitefield used a new preaching technique: preaching without notes, also known as extemporaneous preaching.

Yet Whitefield did not gain popularity until he combined extemporaneous preaching with another new technique: field preaching. Now, Whitefield did not invent preaching in the open, but he combined that with preaching without notes and thus became a phenomenon.

But this should not downplay his message; rather it was his skill as a preacher which drew crowds. And draw them he did. Whitefield ended up making seven preaching trips to America. He preached as an itinerant preacher, meaning that he had no church base but traveled around. He did this in England and Scotland, but it was in the colonies where he achieved his greatest success.

One time Benjamin Franklin himself went to hear Whitefield. He estimated that Whitefield’s booming voice could be heard by 20,000 people. By the time he died, Whitefield had preached an estimated 18,000 times: that equals to more than once a day, every day, from his first sermon until his last. As a matter of fact, on Whitefield’s last day on earth he preached four times; he died the next morning.

Whitefield became the first widely-known personality in the American colonies. He achieved this in part because he traveled so widely throughout the colonies and was seen by so many people. He could be called the first celebrity because during his life he was either seen or known by almost all the colonists.

And this is how he unknowingly helped the colonists achieve the first baby step toward breaking away from England. By traveling through so much of the colonies, he was able to provide the first unifying force in America. Everyone was united in their awareness and love of Whitefield. Not ten years after Whitefield died the colonists unified again as they fought against England in the American Revolution.

©2008 Mark Nickens All Rights Reserved